ShareThis Page

Review: Greek myth morphs to stage in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Orphee'

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:29 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
From left to right: Caroline Worra, plays Eurydice, Jonathan Boyd, plays Heurtebise, Heather Buck, plays La Princesse, and Matthew Worth, plays Orphée, during a promotional shoot for the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Orphée” on April 14, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Jewelry making students Jamie Gratton (left), 17, and Sabrina Farkal (right), 17, both of Lincoln Place, comfort cancer patient Christine Honan of Squirrel Hill as she gets emotional upon receiving a piece of jewelry made by the girls during a celebration at Summerset at Frick Park in Squirrel Hill on Sunday, April 27, 2014. The students' jewelry making class at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School taught by jewelry metal-shop teacher Julie Farber talked to area cancer patients before designing and creating a piece of jewelry to fit each patient's' own style and desires. Honan received delicate dangling earrings that the girls designed and created together in class. 'There's no crying in custom high-end jewelry,' laughed Honan while wiping her tears. She said she wore mascara to force herself not to cry.

Pittsburgh Opera brings its 75th season to a bold conclusion with a smart and stylish staging of “Orphee” by contemporary American composer Philip Glass, a production that opened April 26 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

Glass took more than inspiration to address the Orpheus myth from the magnificent 1950 film by French author Jean Cocteau. He also used Cocteau's brilliant script virtually verbatim, with only a few very small cuts.

Orpheus has natural appeal for composers because he was a mesmerizing singer. The basic story is that Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice, back to the world of the living. His request is granted on the condition that he not look at her, and loses her forever when their eyes meet.

In fact, the very first great opera is Claudio Monteverdi's “Orfeo,” which was first performed in in Venice in 1607. Christoph Wilibald Gluck's famous “Orfeo ed Euridice” opened in Vienna in 1761. A revised version, in French rather than Italian, opened in Paris in 1774. Both Cocteau's film and Glass' opera include a brief quote from Gluck's music.

Cocteau updated the story from antiquity to his own time. He made Orphee a poet rather than a singer. The script is filled with memorable lines about artistic inspiration and fame as a double-edge sword. He also added new characters: The Princess, who comes for those about to die, and her retinue of servants.

Pittsburgh Opera is presenting Sam Helfrich's 2007 staging of Glass' opera, which was first seen in 1993. Much of Cocteau's innovative cinematography is not practical in a live performance.

The opera opens at a party at which young poet Cegeste attacts all the attention, much to Orphee's consternation. It is typical of Cocteau's script that when Orphee asks an older poet what he needs to do, the answer is, “Amaze us.”

Baritone Matthew Worth gave a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the narcissistic Orphee. He sang the role with Virginia Opera in 2012, a fact unaccountably missing from his bio in the program book. Caroline Worra, an alumnus of Pittsburgh Opera's resident artist program, brought appealing vulnerability to Eurydice, who is pregnant in this telling of the story. Her bio fails to mention she created the role at the debut of Helfirch's staging.

Heather Buck made the most of the soaring musical lines Glass wrote for The Princess, particularly in the second act. Orphee is so charismatic a figure that she falls in love with him and takes Eurydice to the world of the dead. She's called to task for that unauthorized move by three judges, led by the impressive Phillip Gay. Those judges, and the cryptic if not nonsensical phrases heard on a radio from which Orphee thinks he's finding inspiration in the film, bring to mind the French resistence to the Nazis in World War II.

The Princess' servant, Heurtebise, is excellently portrayed by tenor Jonathan Boyd, who coped well with the role's high tessitura.

Pittsburgh Opera's production is strongly cast down to the smallest roles. Among the major secondary roles, standouts were current resident artists Daniel Curran as Cegeste and Samantha Korbey as Eurydice's friend and feminist leader Aglonice.

Company music director Antony Walker led a performance that was both decisive and sensitive, with shrewdly judged dynamics. The orchestra played superbly.

While Glass came to fame as a minimalist composer, he now characterizes his style as using “repetitive structures.” The difference is not merely semantic. Musical ideas, including harmony, change frequently, eliminating any chance of boredom.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Orphee” by Philip Glass will be repeated at 7 p.m. April 29, 8 p.m. May 2 and 3 p.m. May 4 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $155. Details: 412-456-6666 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.